It’s not been a good season for Liverpool, not by anyone’s standards. There was always a feeling that last year’s second place finish was an overachievement rather than a true reflection of Liverpool’s current abilities, and after the sale of the talented, if somewhat cannibalistically inclined Louis Suarez, there was always going to be a dip. It is the extent of the current dip that is so alarming. With Liverpool currently languishing in 12th following yet another defeat, their sixth of the season (only QPR with eight have suffered more Premier League defeats this term), it is fair to say that the dip has graduated to a full on slump; a crisis is just a Champions League slip on Wednesday away.
Brendan Rodgers has admitted that despite his considerable success since taking the helm at the Northern club, he is not immune to the pressure that is heaped upon all football managers following a run of bad fun. The more fickle among the Anfield faithful are already calling for the Irishman’s head. After dropping a major hint that he may now be available on the job market and interested in the Premier League, Jürgen Klopp, gaffer of struggling Dortmund, is the man being touted as the favourite to replace Rodgers. That’s according to fans and twitter pundits though, and of course dependent on Rodgers not turning Liverpool’s season around himself and actually getting the sack, which is still a big if. Furthermore, if rumours are to be believed, Klopp will soon have his hands full managing six different Premier League clubs, as well as the German national side, so he may struggle to find the time to reverse Liverpool’s fortunes.
So how has Brendan Rodgers fallen from being lauded as a tactical genius linked with the Barcelona job, to a man who now finds himself subject to speculation that he will be replaced by a man whose own team are dramatically underperforming and sat 16th in the German Bundesliga? To a large extent, Rodgers has become a victim of his own success. He admitted last term and in preseason, that Liverpool were a year ahead of their expected development after their remarkable title challenge. The problem is that football fans are rarely so patient or understanding, and once a certain standard is met, failure to maintain it normally leads to a jobless manager. The task was of course made more difficult by the exit of a certain Uruguayan striker; just ask Tottenham how difficult it is to replace such an outstanding talent.
Like Liverpool did this season with Louis Suarez, Spurs also took the ‘Moneyball’ approach to replacing Gareth Bale, targeting a number of players who could replace the Welshman’s output. Both clubs’ approach has seemingly failed. The differences between the two clubs though is that Tottenham’s whole style of play was centred around getting the best out of Gareth Bale, whereas Liverpool could often boast a better record during Suarez’ frequent extended disciplinary absences than with the Uruguayan in the team. Rodgers’ success revolved around a philosophy; one of intensity, high pressing, penetrative passing, and above all pace. Pace in attack, pace is defence, pace in transition. This intensity hasn’t been present this season, in fact so lacking was it on Sunday that their display prompted Jamie Carragher to say that Liverpool had been ‘beaten by enthusiasm’.
That the defeat to Crystal Palace came at Selhurst Park was only fitting. This slump of Liverpool’s didn’t start this season, but with Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea, an act which was followed by a more collective slip in the next game, Liverpool effectively losing the title in a free goal collapse against Palace. The captain’s dramatic decline in many ways mirrors that of Liverpool’s. From that slip, the former England star hasn’t been the same, and following a woeful World Cup during which he massively underperformed, Gerrard has visibly aged. Worn out and ineffective in the deep role from which he excelled last season; comparisons to Pirlo now look absurd. Gerrard has even admitted that he could leave his childhood club come the end of his contract.
Steven Gerrard was able to perform so well last season because the players around him acted as his legs. With Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva, and in particular Jordan Henderson working hard around him, Gerrard was able to excel in that ‘quarter back’ position, raking passes across the field, creating from deep and occasionally drifting forward to grab a goal. Like their captain though, those players look exhausted. The small size of Liverpool’s squad was key to building consistency last term, but the workload was beginning to tell by the end of the season. With the World Cup in the summer and little time to rest, those tired legs have been carried into the new season. It is always difficult to adapt to the physical demands of the Premier League, and with the summer signings still finding their feet, and last season’s stars struggling for fitness, Gerrard hasn’t had the support he needs to play his natural game.
This issue of ‘lead legs’ as Gary Neville put it, also goes a long way to explaining Liverpool’s lack of the pace and intensity which was their trademark last term. It is a lack that has forced creative players such as Coutinho and Sterling to drop deeper this term, create less, and leave the strikers isolated. Although Lambert, Borini and Balotelli must also take responsibility for being particularly profligate in Sturridge’s extended absence through injury; Lambert’s early goal against Crystal Palace on Sunday was the first between the trio in the Premier League this season.
One positive that Liverpool can take is that they are far from the only big club to have made a stuttering start to the season, and despite this being their third worst ever start to a Premier League season, with only one win in their last nine games, and twenty-one goals conceded during that time, the Reds are still just five points off of Manchester United in fourth. The Red Devils have just nineteen points, which is the lowest points tally for fourth place after twelve games since three points were introduced for a win in 1981-82. The battle for fourth will be an intense clash of fine margins, and Liverpool are definitely still in with a chance. Whether Brendan Rodgers will still be in charge to oversee that challenge remains to seen. The Irishman has not been helped by last season’s success, but neither has he been aided by his own comments; a dig at David Moyes’ performance at Manchester United, and an insistence that after their transfer spend last summer (which Liverpool have since eclipsed), Tottenham should be title contenders, could both come back to haunt him.